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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2001
EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier this year, the 2000 Census revealed extremes and changes in Pinellas County. But not much was being reported about the people in the middle. We wondered: Who are these "average" people? Census data gave us clues. The median age in Clearwater is 41.8, slightly more residents are female than male, and most are white. More live in families than live alone, and many are married with children living at home. About half moved here from another state. After weeks, we found her, just one "average" resident. And this is her story.
CLEARWATER -- Several months ago, Sarah Neumann spotted the small notice in the St. Petersburg Times. "Are you the "average' Clearwater resident?" it asked.
Neumann, who is a few months shy of 42, had to answer yes. She was average, but she had an adventuresome spirit. She e-mailed the newspaper to say she'd be up for an interview.
And so at 6:45 a.m. on a recent Friday, she walked across the beige carpet in her three-bedroom house in northeast Clearwater to answer the doorbell. A reporter stood outside. A photographer was on the way. They were going to spend the day.
She felt anxious. Thoughts zipped across her mind: "Will they think I'm boring? What can they say about me?"
Neumann opened the door, smiled and introduced herself to the reporter, who stepped inside her white ranch-style house on Erin Lane, a cul-de-sac in a nameless, middle-class neighborhood off Sunset Point Road. The house was comfortable, clean and neat with a huge backyard.
At the moment, Neumann was at full throttle. She already had showered, and dressed in a bright pink sweater and black slacks. She had put on a little makeup and brushed her long blond hair.
Now she was prodding her family to wake up. First up was Chris, her outgoing, lanky, 6-foot-4 16-year-old, well past the age of wanting to be mothered. He was on his way to Dunedin High School, unsure what to think of the reporter in the living room.
After Chris left, Neumann stuck her head into Tony's bedroom. The quiet 13-year-old attends Coachman Fundamental Middle School.
"Time to get up," Neumann said.
"I am up."
"No, you're still in bed. Get up."
Some low discussion followed.
"Hey," Neumann said, ending the conversation, "I need to see two feet on the floor."
A little while later, Tony appeared. As did Neumann's good-natured husband, Mike, the finance director for a local social service agency. He gave his wife a quick kiss and left to drop Tony at school and go on to work.
In between rousing people, Neumann turned on her Hewlett Packard computer. Its keyboard is dented by her Corvette-red fingernails; Neumann can type 150 words a minute.
Neumann owns her own typing business. At one time, she had 22 employees and her shingle out at a Belcher Road office center. But for the past two years, she has worked at home, mostly for fun and extra spending money. A former Girl Scout who always sold at least 200 boxes of cookies, she thinks it is pretty easy to make a living.
Clearwater has been pretty good to her family. There was a new black Ford Expedition in the driveway, a large-screen television in the family room and piles of video game equipment in a front room often full of teenagers. The kitchen cupboard overflowed with Tupperware.
For Christmas, the pastel dining room chairs were covered with red velvet chair coverings from Bed, Bath & Beyond, and the tree was loaded with 20 years' worth of Hallmark ornaments.
Neumann was planning to bake at least 18 dozen batches of various Christmas cookies for neighbors and her family. That's part of her other job, trying to give her kids the kind of home she had growing up with a full-time mom.
It's not easy. Some days are a battle against time to tackle typing orders, do housework, review a school assignment with Tony, run errands and cook dinner.
Yet, on the day the reporter visited, work was slow. So Neumann briefly went to Countryside Mall, wrapped Christmas gifts, found a few minutes to watch Oprah and called one of her son's teachers who runs online classes for the Florida Virtual School.
She organized coupons she had clipped, sorting according to the aisles at Albertsons, which she knows by heart. With a black belt in bargain hunting, Neumann sometimes has saved 50 percent on her grocery bills -- to the amazement of store clerks.
As the hours passed with the reporter, Neumann asked what could be written of all this.
"What a boring day!" she insisted. But, she said, "I'm happy. I'm just really content with where I'm at right now."
Humoring the reporter, Neumann went around her house, explaining the treasures scattered throughout. There was the "Future Farmers of America Chapter President" gavel that belonged to her husband as an Ohio farm boy; and the greenish-brown dish, the turquoise pencil holder and the mauve interpretation of an alligator, all sculpted out of clay by her boys.
There were Little League photos and shots of her family screaming on rollercoasters. She unabashedly loves going to Disney World and Busch Gardens. For that and other reasons, her father sometimes says she will never grow up.
Neumann met the man who would become her husband in the early 1980s in Galion, Ohio. At the time, Galion was a one-restaurant, one-bowling-alley country town north of Columbus with 13,166 residents. Its chief claim to fame was that the dial tone was invented there.
Neumann was a secretary for the town's major employer, a telecommunications company called ITT, where she had started work after graduating from high school a year early.
One day when she was 19, she walked by a 23-year-old accountant's desk and her long blond hair got tangled in his phone's stretched-out cord.
Five months later, Sarah and Mike Neumann skipped down the aisle of her family's church in Galion.
After ITT laid off employees in 1984, the young couple headed to Clearwater, where her sister lived, to find work.
Her husband still buys her flowers. Recently, he brought her red roses and carnations. He also got a bouquet with carnations for the cats to play with so they wouldn't mess with his wife's blooms.
The cats are named Moose and Buttons, and they have a story, too. Two years ago, Neumann started feeding a skinny, orange-and-white cat, whom the neighborhood kids called Pumpkin. She thought she was fattening the cat up. Then Pumpkin gave birth on her kitchen floor. Pumpkin rejected her kittens, and Neumann had to bottle-feed them. She kept two.
Neumann enjoys telling the story. She likes to savor little things that have happened to her.
Neumann remembered the last time she was in a newspaper: She was 17, and she was struck by lightning. It came through a phone she was chatting on in her parents' kitchen, throwing her against the refrigerator, which had its motor shorted out by the jolt. She was burned but okay.
Her husband has had a close call, too. When Tony was 3 weeks old, Mike Neumann was driving home one day and had to swerve around a car that was stalled on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. But he lost control of his Camaro and swung into a semitrailer truck. The Camaro was flattened, but remarkably a pocket of space was left around him. He suffered cuts, but he was okay.
Despite the accident, the Neumanns love cars. In fact, they recently bought a 1996 red Corvette they found in the newspaper.
Before the purchase, Neumann's "baby" was a 1998 Pontiac TransAm. She polished the car until it won awards in local car shows. She even had a loud, grumbling muffler installed to make it more sporty.
But it was not a Corvette, which she has wanted since she was a little girl who told her daddy, "I want a long-nosed car" like a Corvette she had seen.
"I always had to have a car with power," she said. "I didn't want a V-6. I want a V-8 engine for driving U.S. 19. I want to be able to get out there and go."
Finally, she got her dream car. But it had to go in the shop for some work.
When the car is finished, she said, she'll have some work to do, too. She has not driven a standard shift in 15 years.
The front door opened at 2:10 p.m., and Chris appeared.
"How was school today? Did you get your picture taken today?" Neumann asked.
Chris shrugged and shared the few details a teenager shares with his mother.
Soon the rest of the family was home. Neumann made a quick batch of instant pasta salad to take to barbecue night, an occasional ritual on Erin Lane, where almost everybody knows each other.
Here, neighbors get together for birthday parties and an annual Fourth of July potluck bash. On some weekend nights, a few folks will sit together on someone's front patio, drinking a few beers and playing "Name that Tune" to the first bars of oldies tunes on the radio.
There have been legendary debates about which neighbor's "monkeybread," also known as caramel roll pull-aparts, is tastier. They trade cliffhanger tales -- such as the one about how one neighbor's rat terrier, Elby, suddenly stopped breathing twice and was revived by mouth-to-snout resuscitation.
Neumann and another neighbor have been collecting clothes and linens for one woman's mother, who was homeless and ill and now lives down the street. They want to try to welcome her to the neighborhood.
"I don't care if I won a million dollars, I love my neighborhood and really wouldn't want to leave," Neumann said.
Around sunset, seven neighbors and an ever-changing number of kids gathered at the home of Sid McArthur, who repairs air conditioning systems. They sat down to a meal of hot dogs, burgers, baked beans, scalloped potatoes, chips and Texas sheet-cake brownies.
The kids played, while the adults' conversation meandered from how to deal with bats getting stuck in a house to the high cost of one neighbor's water bill. Over bottles of Michelob Light and mudslides in plastic cups, they explored the phenomenon of women who can sweet-talk their way out of speeding tickets.
They all agreed that if the space shuttle were hurtling across the pale, full moon tonight, it would be very beautiful.
After dark, five neighborhood kids, including Neumann's Tony, emerged onto the street all dressed in black, getting ready to play "manhunt," their version of hide and seek.
Just before the reporter left, everyone shared their personal mottos.
"Live life every day like it's your last because you don't know how long you're here," said Mary Yerardi, McArthur's girlfriend.
"Camaraderie and caring and looking after one another," McArthur said.
Sarah Neumann, drained from a day of questions, just smiled among her friends and never answered. A few days later, she called to chat about what would be written from her day.
"I know now I'd never want to be a celebrity," she said happily.
Maybe she's not a celebrity, but she's definitely a good sport.